Author Archives: Bill Meehan
Interactive Maps Communicate Real-time Information to Plug the Holes
We have all heard the term safety net. It’s a system, a policy, a program, or device used to protect its owners just in case something bad happens. For example, people often refer to social security as a safety net for older people who don’t have a pension. The term comes to us from the circus, where large, roped nets are set up below trapeze artists. Without the nets, sweaty palms or small distractions could mean instant death. But with the net, they fall harmlessly and land with only a fright. However, most trapeze artists never want to fall. First of all, falling is a sign of failure. Second, when the term originated, the circus actors didn’t trust the integrity of the net, as circuses had and have notoriously bad maintenance. Safety nets have flaws. Trapeze artists know that. Some nets even have holes. Continue reading
Beyond ROI, Key Performance Indices and GIS Close Performance Gaps
[Note: This is the third post in our new series about Managing GIS.]
A common question we get from our utility customers is, “What is the return on investment (ROI) for GIS?” The reason is most utilities need to justify the cost of building, upgrading, or enhancing their GIS (e.g., investing in a tablet-based damage-assessment app) or doing the same with their GIS data. That justification takes the form of a financial study that answers these questions: What is the payback period of GIS? What is its impact on balance and income sheets? What is the cash flow for the project?
Utility financial people call these hard-dollar savings. Hard-dollar savings are a common measuring stick by which to judge the merits of an investment. Continue reading
Many Workflows are Best Served with Targeted Apps
I get this said to me all the time: “We have this big GIS in the office. We use it all the time to make maps and export data into our outage systems or gas leak management system. It’s great! Can we put it into the field for the mobile workers?”
People want mobile GIS. But I respond like a psychiatrist when they ask for it: Instead of giving them a straight answer, I ask them a question: “To do what?”
Their answers span a big gamut. They range from, “It’s easier to get maps on a mobile device than to carry around paper maps,” to…
Everyone wants low cost, environmentally friendly energy. But people don’t want to look at transmission towers, pumping stations, power plants, substations, and wind farms. More than that, they don’t want any of these things located anywhere near them. We used to call this situation NIMBY or Not In My Backyard. Today we have gone from NIMBY to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth).
Transportation organizations have the same problem as utility companies. Everyone complains about traffic jams, lack of public transportation, not enough flights, lack of access to ports, and emissions from freight trains. Yet when a project comes along to provide relief, there is an outcry of opposition.
The electric and gas utility business is complex. Some say the electric grid is the most sophisticated technology in the world. Natural gas networks are not far behind. Diving deep in to the business, there is probably one of nearly every kind of technological wonder at play. Control systems, artificial intelligence, Lidar, sensor networks, augmented reality, and of course GIS. Utilities, to some extent like the space industry, drive innovation of technology. Yet overlaid with all this sparkling technology are some old patterns of behavior.
Every industry strives to improve. Utilities can improve by getting rid of old habits.
Two old behaviors linger: working in silos, and heavy reliance on institutional knowledge. Continue reading
GIS Responds to the Tough Questions
Electric utilities face a new world–one in which the infrastructure is aging along with the workers. The price of everything keeps going up. Customers want better and faster service, but some of them cannot pay their bills. Natural disasters seem to get nastier each year. Governments continue to dole out more and more regulations. The community wants better service, lower emissions, and fewer mishaps. It’s a political nightmare to raise rates. Plus, the new smart grid devices are smothering utility operators with data.
In short: utilities cannot continue to operate as they have been. Utilities need a better way to do business. GIS can help. Continue reading
I recently co-presented a session on GIS and the Smart Grid to a group of about 150 folks from the gas and electric utilities and the telecommunications businesses. We thought it might be interesting to have the groups come together since as more and more utilities implement Smart Grid (electric and gas), there will become greater interdependencies on one another. We further thought that this session would be a great opportunity for each company to tell us their current practices on sharing data, problems and issues. The premise was, of course, that since ArcGIS is a platform which facilitates sharing of information, that both groups could give us feedback on how best to facilitate collaboration. Much to our surprise, the groups do not have much collaboration at all. In fact, they hadn’t really considered it very seriously. When I probed them further, I asked, well how do you share information with each other? One utility guy, perhaps, half-jokingly said that he bought his friend from the phone company a beer and that’s when they shared information.
The biggest take away from this session was this: the discussion on this topic hasn’t really started. It should. Continue reading
Measuring the impact on customers
This year, New England had one of its worst late season storms in recent history. Heavy snow brought down trees, which in turn, brought down many power lines. Some people were out of power for more than a week. In March, a fire in a substation shut off power to the historic Back Bay section of Boston for several days. The blackout left hotels, office buildings, and subway stations dark and shuttered some of the most exclusive shops in the city. Continue reading
Creating a better risk model
When dealing with the complex infrastructure of an electric, gas or water utility system, things often go wrong. Things go wrong because there are so many factors that can contribute to a problem. Utility operators face an enormous task. They must gather accurate and timely data, understand the relative importance of each factor, and determine relative risk of damage to the system. Once utility risk is understood, a rational mitigation and investment strategy can be developed. Most utilities are able to prioritize maintenance and replacement projects based on factors such as equipment age, and the history of maintenance, operation, and failure. Continue reading
Preserving institutional knowledge
When I ran an electric utility operations division, one of my favorite employees was a guy named Stanley. Stanley started as a line worker; climbed poles; became a foreman, later a supervisor; then managed all the crews in the region. I remember how Stanley worked. Continue reading